Lifeguards say beachgoers are defying double-red flag warnings at South Walton beaches
While drownings in Walton County already have topped last year's total, lifeguards are exhausting their resources trying to keep defiant swimmers from entering the Gulf when conditions are hazardous.
Four people have drowned during the first 45 days of the season, and lifeguards have rescued at least 50 people. Still, swimmers are ignoring the flag system and warnings from officials, growing ever more defiant and hostile, according to public safety personnel.
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On Saturday alone, Beach Safety Director David Vaughan estimated that lifeguards made thousands of contacts with people who were not adhering to the double-red flag warnings.
The South Walton Fire District began flying double-red flags about 4 p.m. Friday, and the warnings continued on Saturday. Double-red flags indicate that it is not only life-threatening, but illegal, to enter the Gulf.
“Our lifeguards are hustling,” Vaughan said. “They are reaching out to every person they encounter, but are seeing people disobey their directions and disregard the messaging. As soon as lifeguards drive away, people are jumping right back in the water.”
The South Walton Fire District has lifeguards stationed at 15 towers along the 26 miles of beach. The defiance problems have been occurring across the beaches in Walton County, but particularly in high-density areas such as Miramar Beach and the Seacrest area.
Vaughan said the public’s defiance of the flag system has become a common theme for lifeguards during the past three years. It reached new heights in 2020, and this year he said officials are seeing a surprising amount of hostility.
“The level of hostility that my guards and even our partners in law enforcement, having talked to my counterpart at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, it’s a little bit of surprise and dismay that people are so brazenly defiant,” Vaughan said.
Walton County commissioners recently approved tougher sanctions for double-red flag violations, raising the fine for a first-time offense from $100 to $500. The South Walton Fire District works with the Sheriff’s Office and Walton County Beach Code Compliance to ensure fines are enforced.
Many times, individuals are given a little grace before officials issue them a fine. Vaughan said they try to come from a place of understanding, realizing that many people have come a long way just to enjoy the beach and some are unfamiliar with the flag system.
“What happens is we warn people and when it gets to the point where people aren’t heeding the warnings and being defiant, after repeated warnings then we call our counterparts,” Vaughan said. “It’s their discretion if they see someone in the water, then they have the power to write a citation.”
There have been 17 double-red flag days in Walton County since January, and citations can be given out only on those days. WCSO deputies and Beach Code Compliance personnel have issued almost 20 tickets in the past two-week period alone.
But this still hasn’t deterred some. While only one person required EMS assistance, several distressed swimmers had to be pulled from the water on Saturday.
“It is a matter of life and death," Vaughan said. "If you don’t pay attention to a very simple flag system and you don’t take it seriously, your vacation can change into a life changing event for you or a member of your family.”
Two of the drownings this year have occurred on a day when double-red flags were flying.
Single-red flags do not prohibit individuals from entering the water, but still indicate potentially life-threatening conditions and lifeguards have stressed that even “knee-deep is too deep" for unexperienced swimmers.
Vaughan said lifeguards are doing everything they can to keep people safe and prevent any further loss of life. Beachgoers are urged to abide by the flag system and stay out of the water when double-red flags are flying.
“That’s what’s frustrating about the defiance is this is entirely preventable,” Vaughan said. “We’re not trying to ruin you fun. We’re trying to ensure that you have years of fun.”